My mom died a year ago today. I’ve been trying to think of how to best mark this sad anniversary here. It’s tempting to devote this post to how wonderful she was. Remarkably. How much I miss her. Terribly. How there’s a hole in my life that will be with me forever. How I’ve managed to stumble and stagger my way back into my writing life, eventually writing every day for  almost three months to finish a brand new novella. How proud she’d be of me for that and for intending to live the best life I can in honor of her steadfast faith in my dreams and ambitions, and the unconditional love she gave me every day of my life.

So, in that brief paragraph, I gave in to the temptation. And now I’m going to tell a story that incorporates several she told me many times. Some of her favorite memories that show just how cool she was.

I’ve written about her older brother Earl here before. When she was a young woman, he would find her jobs in Memphis and take her there to live with his family while she worked, until the needs of her parents or just plain homesickness would pull her back to the family farm. Before that she would go for extended visits, so as they all grew up his children felt almost like siblings. 

She was especially close with her oldest nephew, Paige. Having grown up very near the airport (You can see the airport behind his back yard in the picture below), he loved planes. One might say he had flying in his blood. As soon as he was old enough, he took lessons and then took to the skies. 

Since one of her jobs was as a waitress at a little restaurant at the airport, my mom was very familiar with and comfortable around airplanes, especially as part of her job was loading meals into the galleys in preflight prep. Uncle Earl arranged for her to go up with his pilot friends on occasion, and she loved it. She leapt at every opportunity to leave the ground and soar over the Mississippi Delta.

Her favorite pilot was, of course, Paige. When she was living back at home, on occasion she would be awakened in the early morning by the roaring engine of a small plane coming in for a landing in the pasture behind the house. She would hurry to get dressed and join her parents in the rush outside to greet their visiting pilot. 

“Sarah! I have to go get refueled. Wanna come?” She was always eager to climb aboard and join him. They would fly away to the nearest town that had the fuel he needed, enjoying their time together in the early morning sky. She took great pleasure in his willingness to fly low and buzz the homes of her girlfriends. I always wondered if those girls were envious and/or a little in awe of their friend zooming over their heads, waving to them when they went outside to look up. I also wonder if it registered with them how brave and cool she was.

One particular flight must have tested her bravery, though when she spoke about it there was no trace of lingering fear. Just the thrill of adventure and faith in her pilot. As they neared their landing field that was literally a field, Paige took his attention briefly from the controls. “Sarah, I don’t want you to be scared, but I have to tell you there’s a problem with the plane. I’ve got to bring us down anyway. We’ll be okay. I promise.” She must have been scared, but she was also too courageous to fall apart as many people would. “I know we will!” And   they ended up safely back on the ground, just as she knew they would. My mom had an amazing capacity for rock solid faith in the people she loved during treacherous times. It was not only his tremendous piloting skills that brought them down safely that day, but that he also flew on the faith in him radiating from his passenger. I know, because I flew through every day of my life on the wings of that same unshakeable faith.

When I call his piloting skills tremendous, it’s not merely as a cousin who has always hero worshipped Paige, though we never met. He never, ever lost his love of flying, went on to become an Air Force jet fighter pilot, and was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was critically burned in 1956, when the flaming F-89D Scorpion he was piloting crashed into the same Mississippi River he’d flown near as a young man, though his final flight was over Minnesota. One of his two engines exploded. He died from his injuries the next day. There was nothing he could have done…but he did anyway. He stayed with his fighter to guide it away from a densely populated residential area. I grew up so very proud to have such a hero in my family. Some say that as we die we see our life flash before our eyes. If that’s true, among the memories of his wife and young son, parents, siblings, and extended family, there was his whole great flying life before him, like a cherished dream. Among the wings and clouds and blue skies, was the green grass of a pasture landing field and the echoing words “We’ll be okay. I promise.” “I know we will.”

(Photograph that ran with his obituary)

I honestly don’t know what exactly comes after death. But for right this moment I know what I want it to be for my mom and her beloved Paige. So I’m imagining them sitting together on the highest cloud, swinging their feet as I’m sure they did fishing with Grandaddy as children, then a smile, a nod, a whisper of wings, as they take flight together once again.

When she told Paige that she worried about the danger he was in as a fighter jet pilot, his answer told its own story of the kind of man he’d grown up to become.

“Don’t worry about me, Sarah. If I die flying, I’ll have died doing what I love to do.”

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